Should There Be Historical Preservation of Deeply Ugly Buildings?

Last week's high-decibel hearing on the state of city preservation proved it once and for all: One thing San Francisco doesn't need legislation to preserve are high-decibel hearings on the state of preservation.

Battles between those who build things and those who'd prefer things not be built are not necessarily a San Francisco specialty. In many a Bay Area burg, a homeowner must wade into city bureaucracy to install a garden gnome in front of her home, then deal with the preservation committee when she wishes to remove it. But in San Francisco — a city where, as former longtime Residential Builders Association president Joe O'Donoghue notes, "You have to put in 14 sets of plans for a change in your fucking facade" — we have had our share of head-scratching preservation issues.

• The years-long battle over the fate of the North Beach library — a structure that is, literally, built like a brick shithouse — was the inspiration for last week's meeting. Less well-known, however, is that landmark status is being sought on four other Appleton and Wolfard "mid-century modern" libraries: the Eureka Valley, Excelsior, Marina, and Western Addition branches. If ever you wanted to know what a library would look like if it were constructed by the builders of Eastern European factories — now you do.

• Efforts to preserve a 70-year-old pine tree on Telegraph Hill resulted in city crews laboring for months and racking up a bill in the neighborhood of $110,000. The heavy construction disabled the street's fire hydrant. While fixing that, workers inadvertently knocked out power to 500 homes and businesses in the area.

• Regardless of your position on the Tonga Room, the city's official historic review of the Fairmont Hotel's kitschy tiki bar is worth a read. The floating bandstand, indoor rain, and other cartoonish Polynesian fare are deemed "historically relevant," and the Tonga itself represents "a rare remaining example of a distinct phase of post–World War II popular culture, and includes a substantial number of distinctive characteristics."

• A 2004 ordinance passed by the Board of Supervisors prevented owners of historic theaters from altering their marquee signs. Unfortunately, the ordinance also prevented the restoration of those signs — leading to owners being unable to repair their crumbling marquees. When the marquees became so decrepit they had to be removed, the ordinance prevented them from being replaced, as this would create "noncomplying structures."

• In 2008, the supes landmarked the "shipwright's cottage" in Hunters Point. The 500-square-foot shack, built in 1875, formerly housed the builders of wooden sailing vessels. Now, however, it's a crumbling wreck. Its inch-thick walls enclose no kitchen, restroom, or running water. To the best of anyone's recollection, it has stood derelict since the 1960s. Former owner Joe Cassidy says a vagrant was squatting in it when he bought the land a decade ago — but that man soon left, as the "cottage" was growing too dangerous and run-down for his liking.

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The North Beach Library was NOT named a landmarkThere is NO landmarked tree on Telegraph HillThe Tonga Room was NOT named a landmarkTheater owners and cottage owners, like everyone else, do NOT have a right to let their buildings run down.

There is NO truth in this piece.


While I agree with much of what Mr. Eskenazi alleges, quoting Joe O'Donohue is akin to asking a wolf how he likes his vegetables. Many of the current laws were put in place to protect important buildings from Mr. O'D and his Residential Builders mafia. The Preservation Commission was formed after a decade of Willie Brown/RBA backed feeding frenzy of loft building that lined O'D's pockets while demolishing many historic structures. Should Park Merced be preserved in its present state of mossy bleakness? Are preservationists kidding? I can think of no preservation project that has left the preservation community with bratty stupidity all over their collective face. Having hundreds of miniscule hoops to jump through hasn't produced a better record of preservation than similar cities with similar building inventories and more streamlined processes. This ball of knotted twine also makes it too easy for NIMBY neighbors to throw a perfectly good project under the bus because, well, they're NIMBYs. The preservation process must be re-examined and re-aligned to make it easier to for project sponsors to adaptively re-use existing structures and erect buildings consistent with zoning laws and good planning tenets. Want to know why real estate is universally unaffordable in San Francisco? Ask a preservationist.l


What a load of lard. Name one specific example of a loft building being built on the embers of a historic structure.

I loath the Joe O mentality, but I loath a liar even more.


Although because it is hidden by a tall fence, you can't see it from the street, Joe should see our landmarked carriage house at 280 Divisadero. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we and our neighbors think it is truly ugly. We are willing to spend a lot of time, money and inconvenience in rebuilding the facade in a fantasy manner and turning the building into a wonderfully cute rental, but the Historic Preservation Commission denied our proposal 4 to 3, because they are concerned that, even with a plaque and photo description,someone someday might confuse the resulting facade for historic. Richard Zillman

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